Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Live Blog: Ryue MIT

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Apr 1, '11 4:27 PM EST

    Konnichiwa, Archinect!


    In lieu of attending the March 31 Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa lecture at the GSD, I went to the Nishizawa-only lecture tonight at MIT on April 1. Word on the street was that when Sejima and Nishizawa brought their minimal approach to the lecture format at the GSD ("this is our project. This is the outside. This is the inside."), it wasn't that engaging. Was it better the next night at MIT? Here's my coverage of what happened: you tell me!

    6:27 pm: The lecture hall isn't even full! Ryue Nishizawa is at the front, wearing converse sneakers.

    6:34 pm: Nader Tehrani, chair of MIT's department of architecture, is giving the introduction. "In light of the recent traumatic events in Japan, SANAA's work resonates in a particular way...The mere shelter from the elements is a pale shadow in comparison with the" way the Japanese historically have had to grapple with the violent forces of nature.

    "SANAA sets out to evacuate their presence...Sejima and Nishizawa find ways of editing out everything, out of sight...It's contents are deviously omitted...a work of erasure...If the conventional task of the detail is to bring emphasis to the joint...SANAA undermines those things that we expect to see."

    Tehrani is talking about how their work hides not only the physical articulation of structure, but programmatic specificity, in the interest of foregrounding affect. "The strange absence of lines are to be taken literally...on the other hand, each building is accompanied by a thick stack of working drawings," of the structure and systems that are hidden in each work."

    Tehrani says more than this--his thoughts are sensitive and critical, if not radical or unsurprising--and it struck me as an eloquent introduction that was respectful and positive without being fawning.

    6:43 pm: Nishizawa comes to the podium. "Thank you for giving me such a wonderful opportunity to tell you what I'm thinking about the projects. In Tokyo, I belong to the SANAA office and the Nishizawa office." He's explaining how he and Kazuyo Sejima started their joint office in order to enter a competition at the time when he decided to strike out on his own (in 1997), and how they've maintained that office since then. Tonight's lecture will show work from both offices.

    6:46 pm: Teshima Island Museum. Interesting program: the client wanted to show just one work of art, and it would never change.

    The site has no straight lines; everything is an organic topography.

    It's a concrete building, "but we did not use plywood for the formwork. We made a mountain of soil and installed the reinforcement on the soil." The workers poured the concrete for 22 hours straight so that it would be a single pour without joints.

    image [Note: some of the images I'm posting are from the internet, not from the lecture itself--some of the slides are similar, and others identical. I'm using my photos from the lecture mostly when I didn't have equivalents already from online.]

    "I didn't install any glass roof in the opening. I thought it was nice to leave it open to invite rain or wind, or even insects inside. So this is a semi indoor/outdoor space. ...In the morning, water appears somewhere on the floor. It's kind of a moving water project."

    6:54 pm: Serpentine Gallery.


    "The shape and height of the roof is defined in relation to each situation." It's high, at 6m, near the road, and 3m near the existing building. "And there is no beam to support the roof. The roof is supported by a bunch of columns. The roof is a shiny aluminum plate, reflecting the landscape. ...This is the lowest part, at 60cm, where adults can't come--this is for kids. Normally it's a very open space, with no walls, but when rain comes, it creates an envelope [where the water is pouring off the roof.]"


    7:00 pm: Toledo Art Museum.

    "We are trying to keep the height of the building as low as possible to not disturb the beautiful landscape."


    "The idea of the plan organization is that we give curved glass walls--balloon shapes for each part of the building." And he's describing how the buffer space between the different bubbles allows for climate control: the hot shop where staff blow glass is hot, the exhibition spaces have to be carefully climate controlled, and so on.


    "The wall is curved, but the space feels straight; you can see through to the beautiful green landscape."

    7:07pm: "The open feeling of architecture is something we're getting interested in. It's nice even for a house....The rooms are lined up, but shifting, to create gaps between them. Every room has its own dimension, with very high ceiling height. Some roofs can be opened create semi-indoor, semi-outdoor spaces."

    7:11pm: House in Kamikura in progress.

    image [Site in Kamikura]

    "Kamikura city is very strict." So they only have 60 square meters of floorspace for a house and shop. "And then I started working on this smallness and density to find out what kind of interesting idea can be made."




    The stacked spaces go from the shop on the ground floor up to a tiny bedroom on the top floor. Every room has its own terrace.

    7:15pm: Tree House. Now in late design phase.



    "This is a small house for nature in NYC state." It's on a "mountain top" (a ridge). "This is a very special shape so I didn't want to have the house on the ground. So the house is floating on the air and they have a very long slope to reach the house."

    7:18pm: "For the New Museum people, who used to live on Broadway street." (The project of our 2nd year critic, Florian Idenburg!) He's talking about the expanded concrete mesh; how it gives a sense of depth on the facade, a kind of "unclear feeling," with some transparency.



    Every exhibition room has a skylight, which has a different position for each room. Each room also has different proportions.

    "Nighttime, you can see where is the window and wall, but daytime, everything just looks like mesh facade."

    7:21pm: Louvre-Lens project outside of Paris.


    "This is the big museum project we're now working on." This used to be a coal mining area, and he's explaining that the loss of this source of employment is one reason why the museum wanted to open a new branch here.

    It's a big site, and they broke it down into a number of rooms, so it doesn't feel so big. "The facade has a transparent part and an opaque part, which is an aluminum wall to reflect the landscape."



    The Louvre collection follows a long history: 4000 BC to the 19th century, so they gave the exhibition hall a long room to show this. "When they walk, people can feel European history through the collection."





    The aluminum walls reflect the landscape (on the outside) and the collections (on the inside) in a kind of foggy way.

    7:28pm: Rolex Learning Centre. Except that he calls it the "student center in Lausanne." No mention of the fancy watch.






    "This is really big space. 180m each way. This is a space where every student and faculty member can stay in one space. The space is divided by round patios but people can go between these patios. Since this building is really huge, we gave this three dimensional topography to create transparent, open space, so that people can go through the building to reach the existing campus." So the space under the building "becomes a kind of public street."



    "Roof and floor keep a parallel relation...this gives a very special landscape feeling inside the building. For example, this is the valley where you're bound by the two hills; but from this side, you can't see the next hill, because the roof comes down. So you can't see the other levels but the space is connected."

    "The biggest jump is 80m."


    Done. Applause.

    Question from the Audience: What is important for you about transparency and dematerialization?

    RN: "I want to create a relation. If I create an opaque wall, there's no relation. ...But I want to make the opportunity for people to make many different kinds of relation."

    Question from the Audience: "I'll ask it a different way: you're often held to be the inheritor of the Miesian tradition of transparency, but I sense something...deeper in your work. Sejima complained that the photographers wait until the light is transparent to take their photos, but that misses the point."

    RN: I don't understand question. [There was no answer, no attempt to rephrase or understand the question; we just moved on entirely.]

    Question from the Audience: "There's something very special about community, which we've lost in this country. Your country is better. But there's something about open space, and seeing where other people, which is very beautiful in your work. And you've done it so I thank you for that." OK, that wasn't a question, but it was a nice way to end. Everyone applauded and it's over.



    The GSD's Japanese lecture series is called "A New Innocence." My question is, are Sejima and Nishizawa really so innocent? Do they not engage the big questions about their work because they deliberately choose not to speak about these things, or is it because they really don't think about them? Or is it a language issue? Have they substantively engaged these questions elsewhere? I don't know enough about them to know.

    Thanks for reading!


    • qdpv

      thanks for live blogging!

      i'd say it's a language barrier. i recently read an interview ryue did with sou fujimoto (for el crouquis 151) and was struck by how theoretical and assertive the discussion was, particularly in light of how matter-of-fact his english lectures have been.

      Apr 2, 11 1:28 am  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Thanks, v. That makes sense, and rings true with the (very vague) recollections I have of seeing Nishizawa being interviewed at the Canadian Centre for Architecture a few years ago. But the question remains: why, then, do Sejima and Nishizawa lecture in English without translators and keep the conversation so reductive? This seems like a deliberate choice.

      There were translators on hand at the GSD and this wasn't enough to up the level of the conversation. I didn't see translators at the MIT event, but presumably if Nishizawa had asked for this, they would have readily supplied one.

      Apr 2, 11 9:15 am  · 

      The translator format is much more awkward than having an architect speak about their work in English, no matter how limited that skill may be. And besides, when are these lectures by well-known architects ever particularly illuminating? We all know almost all of SANAA's works and if we haven't read the often very articulate Croquis commentary, there are countless other encounters with the works and articles/interviews about them such that it will always be disappointing to hear an architect not really have much more to add.

      The interesting lectures are the ones by architects with less well-documented or well-known work. Not only are you ingesting new projects and a specific way of working, but you get it directly from the source. It's why I thought the Fujimoto lecture was far more engrossing than the Ishigami or SANAA ones. His English is far more capable and his work less known.

      I also have to stick up for SANAA a bit because unlike many architects who coat their buildings in excessive discussions of "big questions" (and frankly there are never many applicable big questions in built projects), I think Nishizawa/Sejima have never been particularly equivocal about the rather straightforward nature of the projects. They focus on material, construction, practical systems, and they just have an impeccable level of taste. They have larger issues that they've worked with across their body of work, but they aren't the types to engage in rather obtuse conversations about "transparency" and its infinite gradations.

      Apr 2, 11 12:46 pm  · 
      drums please, Fab?
      they aren't the types to engage in rather obtuse conversations about "transparency" and its infinite gradations.

      except for: 'Sejima complained that the photographers wait until the light is transparent to take their photos, but that misses the point.'

      and who says bubble diagrams can't be architecture?
      and i hope that rainbow 'hell yes!' is temporary!
      Apr 2, 11 1:31 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang


      You raise some very good points. I've never been one to think that if an architect gives us a wonderful building, they owe us something else (i.e. theorizing) on top of that. So I'm with you there.

      I guess there was just so much hype, and such a big crowd, when they came to the GSD that the actual event ended up seeming disappointing (so I am told--I wasn't there). And, without it being a judgment of SANAA (because the work is undeniably important), I'm wondering about this idea of "innocence" in their work and process. It wouldn't bother me at all if an architect deliberately abstained from certain conversations, but it just wasn't clear in Nishizawa's lecture how deliberate this was.

      One criticism that I do have, though, is in their absolute lack of responsiveness to certain questions that were asked by the audience, at both schools. A question doesn't need to be answered in the same register or on the same terms through which the question was asked--but it strikes me as a bit eccentric that they would travel all the way here to deliver a lecture, and then feel OK about skipping over questions that their presentation provoked from their audience. A bit more of a dialogue would have been really good.

      Apr 2, 11 1:43 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      I also admit that I'm like Tiger Mom here--showing my love (or admiration) in this case through criticism unreasonable expectations. I really like SANAA's work.

      Apr 3, 11 11:29 am  · 

      It seems that I have polemical views here. At once I think that it is appropriate and important for architect's to theorize their work in the natural production of it, and on the other hand it is clear that work can be unnecessarily encumbered by this desire to critically situate it within a theoretical or even a historical context. Meaning that sometimes it must be good for work to simply be the result of personal desire and taste.

      I was at the GSD lecture and found the most DISTASTEFUL thing of the night to be some of the GSD faculty's seeming disdain of very thoughtful student inquiries into SANAA's work. It seemed that Sejima and Nishizawa attempted to answer these questions (though certainly not directly) but there was a stuffy air in the room that suggested that we (the discipline) should actually NOT be questioning the choices of these Pritzker prize winning architects... Whether to use a square inside of a circle as opposed to a circle inside of a square. This silent revolt against the "question-and-answer" session suggests that theoretical criticism might also be unnecessary for the user/viewer/student of the project. Are we to simply accept the work as exquisite (which in the case of SANAA it usually is) or is it still acceptable, prudent, or even important to question the veracity of a intellectual argument even if the very presence of the argument was never intended or considered by the architect? That would be a rather uninteresting future. For now it certainly makes for rather dull RE-presentations of well-known-work, masquerading as academic "lectures."

      Apr 3, 11 10:40 pm  · 
      vado retro

      wow, i am also wearing converse sneakers. are his the kind without laces?

      Apr 4, 11 7:11 pm  · 

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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